What Makes Taiji (tai-chi) Different?

taiji / tai-chi movement is uniqueWhat’s the difference between “internal” arts like taiji (tai-chi), and most other sports and body disciplines out there?  What is so special about an exercise that most people associate with old age and a mind-numbing slow tempo?  I’ll explain to you why taiji is so fantastic for your health and why both the young or old, strong or weak can benefit from it.

First, my pet peeve: the name!

Chen style taijiFirst I’d like to clarify a point about the title of the art: tai-chi.  The ‘chi‘ part of that name is not the same chi or qi Chinese character that we basically translate into English as energy!  Its is not the same character (word), it is not the same concept at all.  Its just that in English it sounds to us like that other Chinese word “chee”.   These days, using Pinyin romanization, the title of the art is more correctly written in English as ‘taiji‘.   Translations of the title of the art come close to something like ‘grand ultimate’.

Why is taiji so “good for your health.” ???

Since you’re reading this article, you’re probably interested in what makes taiji different from bascially all the other physical regimens out there?  What does it train?  Why not just stick to “real” martial-arts, or to get exercise –  just run??  Why practice, or as some say ‘do’ taiji ??

While all exercise can be good for you, different ones train different things.  Some can be used to push yourself to get stronger, and some don’t require much physical strain.  For example, football and capoeira can both make you healthy, but also break you!  Golf or darts might never take your body to the next level, but still, can well train some coordination.  You get my point.

A little history about Taiji first

Taiji has historically been a martial art!  That is, people actually used it to fight. So that tells you there was a lot more to the whole art than just moving real slow.

Taiji is actually a bunch of martial applications combined with a set of rules for how to move your body in the most efficient manner.  It is the art, and the family heirloom of a particular family (that eventually became a whole village) of professional military men.   Therefore it was not taught outside of the family for most of its history.   They started teaching those outside the direct family line several generations ago and now there are several other families who have produced masters in the art – and they’ve developed their own ‘versions’.

Chen Ziqiang with spear

As a full martial art, Chen style Taiji has weapons training.

In this article when I talk about taiji, I’m mostly referring to the style/quality of movement, not the martial arts aspect, or specific choreography.  Its the style of movement that makes it so good for you. By the way, there are a few other (Chinese Martial) arts besides taiji that use these rules of movement.  Many people believe all martial artists must eventually move in this manner if they get to the higher levels.

Today, there are many styles of taiji that are derivations of the martial art practiced by the Chen family that started it.  In the last two decades original ‘Chen style’ has gotten more popular though most of what is seen in the world is ‘Yang style’ (named after the family that popularized that style.)  Some of the many versions maintain the martial arts focus to whatever extent, while others have completely lost that information/focus.  Regardless, all styles are just as good for you if practiced ‘correctly’.

Sports and the body

All physical movements require some amount of muscular strength, and all sports will help tone and/or develop some muscle, as well as other tissue.  Which and how much depends on the sport.  Each physical discipline develops its own characteristic set of tissue.  Different sports and body disciplines depend on different amounts of physical strength to get the job done.  Weight-lifting in particular emphasizes muscular strength, while in something like baseball muscular strength is not the main focus.

What are some traits/problems with muscular size and strength as the main focus in exercise?

  • Building and maintaining muscles requires expending a lot of qi/energy, and consuming large quantities of food, especially protein.
  • Exercise must be vigorous to increase muscle bulk and power.  Also, there is a tendency to lose flexibility as you gain muscle mass.
  • As you age, muscle tissue isn’t rebuilt as efficiently, but still requires all the nutrients to nourish and maintain itself.  Also as you age, muscles will begin to decline in strength and size.   It takes more to maintain the same muscles when older.

You can have a strong natural constitution, eat the right foods, and train everyday, but at some point, especially as you age, muscular development reaches a peak.

Work is done through whole body connected movement versus localized muscles

Chen Xiang at Stanford

His power amazed Stanford scientists

In taiji you learn how to set up and maintain certain relationships in your body, especially between the ground, your midsection, and the extremities. You use as much muscular energy as is required to maintain that relationship.  The focus is on a whole body connection powering movement, rather than specific muscles and their strength.

Though taiji does not focus on muscular strength, certain muscles, especially the legs, do get strong through practice because of the constraints of the type of movement the art imposes.  In fact you will get quite a workout.

There’s more to power than muscles

Aside from muscles, what you also have are certain connective tissue such as tendons which join muscles to bones, ligaments attaching bones to other bones, fasciae which wrap around muscles to hold them in place, and similar tissue around the kidneys, heart, testes, liver, and the lymph nodes.  Especially the lungs, vocal cords, and ligaments between vertebrae are composed of very elastic connective tissue.

As it turns out, this connective tissue is extremely strong and pliable, and can be trained to be more so.  Connective tissue require very little vascularization to be maintained.  These tissue are not affected by age.  Muscles degrade with age.  Tendons can maintain their strength until your last days with very little relative demand in nutrients.

Also, tendons have a rubbery quality which allows them to store power when twisted.  And, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the amount of power that they can be trained to store!

In 2007 Stanford sports researchers took Taiji Master Chen Xiang into the lab and hooked him up to sensors and asked him to demonstrate taiji power release.  The scientists were floored at what the instruments showed!  “The explosive power of the strikes was stunning – 400 pounds of force generated by Chen’s body accelerating from 0 mph to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds – faster than any Lamborghini out on the street.”  This level of power was a first for the lab!

By maintaining their springiness, flexible tendons prevent the stiffness that’s associated with old age.  This is another reason why taiji is ‘so good for you.’

The power generated in Taiji is a result of connective tissue

Master Zhang Xue Xin is a Chen style practitioner who teaches in San Francisco, CA

In taiji, the tendons are trained as a result of learning correct structure, then learning to move while maintaining correct structure.  When you develop your coordination, your muscles don’t have to work as hard in movement, and so stay mostly relaxed.

When the muscles are relaxed, the connective tissue is able to transport electrical impulses much more efficiently.  In the translated classic writings on the art, this is conveyed as:  only when you relax can you correctly transmit the qi.  In practicing taiji, a lot of training goes into relaxing the muscles, and engaging the tendons and ligaments to hold your structure and power movement.   Relax doesn’t mean limp, it means you don’t excessively use one specific set of muscles in place of using your whole body simultaneously!

Tendons and ligaments directing the bones are much more efficient at load-bearing than muscles.

Practical experience revealed this to martial artists long ago, and it is being re-discovered today through modern research.

Learning to “relax and transmit the qi” isn’t as simple as it sounds. Being ‘relaxed,’ while at the same time not being too limp is a milestone for any aspiring taiji or qigong practitioner.  In fact, this skill, combined with patience and consistency is all you need to do wonders for you body in the form of Zhan Zhuang, a.k.a. “standing practice.

Over the last 40 years, a lot of research has been done in China and abroad to determine the pathways of qi, the acupuncture meridians, and their connection to qigong type exercises.  What they’ve found is that fascia and connective tissue link and connect the organism even down to the microscopic level, each cell with the rest.  And, these connective tissue can function as a vast electrical communication system spanning the entire body!

The connective tissue has a crystalline lattice structure that is compressed during movements.  These movements generate bioelectrical signals.  Many suspect that the acupuncture meridians are closely tied to this phenomenon in the fascia.

One side effect of training these connective tissue which are also an information highway for the body, is that you get very sensitive to your body orientation in space and what is around you.  This ‘extra sense’ is very useful in martial arts.

While all physical activity will strengthen tendons as well as muscles, what sets arts like taiji apart from other physical exercises is that taiji teaches you to use the minimum required muscular involvement.  You spend a lot of time learning how to do all sorts of movements without unnecessarily involving localized muscle.  This can be very difficult – not because of physical strain, but because you have to un-learn unconscious (postural, and more) habits.  In the long run the body learns to be mostly relaxed and stable even in extreme physical and mental situations.

When the muscles are mostly relaxed, the fascia is able to transport the qi/electrical impulses much more efficiently.  The tendons learn how to do the work and get stronger and stronger.  This allows the “inner strength” gains associated with taiji and qigong.  The traditional saying is that you become like “steel wrapped in cotton.”  This is talking about the apparent paradox that even though the muscles of the taiji practitioner feel relaxed and calm, the power he/she transmits is solid.

The skinny old guy who can’t be toppled

This inner strength isn’t just a physical power, but that aspect of it is the easiest thing for other people to see and experience.  That’s why you always see “demonstrations” of taiji where 10 people are pushing on some master and he just can’t be pushed down.  Or another favorite is when the 180+ pound guy gets thrown around like a rag doll by an old guy who looks about 120 pounds.  It really has to be seen/felt to be believed, but the article on Chen Xiang helps you get an idea too.   Don’t trust everything you see on YouTube though – there are a lot of ‘teachers’ who are charlatans.

Aside from displays of power, this form of training and movement is also great for promoting health.  Correct taiji movement is a reflection of the most efficient way to move: as a whole unit rather than disparate parts.  To be able to do the art correctly, you have to learn to notice your unconscious postural habits and let them go.  Working out this undue muscular involvement in your physical movements and habits lets your body naturally integrate its various parts into a more cohesive whole.   (Essentially you’re doing what acupuncture and herbs and any true healing aim to do, before you get sick and need it done to you!)

What is clearly observable is that through good practice, one will get stronger legs and mid-section (the core!) which greatly improve balance and structure.  What you dont see so easily is the other effects that are so romanticized when talking about taiji: working out your unconscious physical bad habits has great ramifications for your brain, mood, and general approach to life!

Other perks: joints remain flexible, circulation is unconstrained, and your bones remain strong (because of proper load-bearing), and more!